Good health, good sense (Editorial)

Human resources goes to a lot of trouble to recruit, train and retain high-performing employees. It only makes sense to keep them alive and on the job, doesn’t it?

So why aren’t more firms taking the wellness path? Either HR isn’t doing its bit to get the message across or CEOs and senior teams have a mental block that fails to connect profits and employee health. For all the boardroom talk of financials and return-on-investment, corporate leaders don’t seem overly affected by some of the statistics available for some time.

Take heart disease, Canada’s number one killer. Health Canada’s most recent Census stats from 1995 show it as the cause of 37 per cent of deaths overall, with roughly 33,000 working-age Canadians dying from heart disease in one year. And it’s largely stoppable.

Health Canada lists the top contributors as smoking, bad diet, physical inactivity, stress, being overweight and family history. With all but the last preventable, the list is a prime target for employer initiatives — smoking cessation, fitness programs, lifestyle counselling, healthy cafeteria foods and stress reduction and management (for mental health reasons as well as cardiovascular).

Cancer, another leading killer, is also being linked to preventable lifestyle issues. The American Cancer Society recently stated diet and inactivity leading to obesity are responsible for one-third of cancer deaths.

According to a 1997 Heart Health Surveys Research Group report more than 50 per cent of adult Canadians are overweight and 30 per cent are obese.

Health Canada’s report, The Economic Burden of Illness in Canada, 1998, released last year, says ill health adds up to $159.4 billion annually in direct and indirect costs.

Direct costs include treatment and rehabilitation, while indirect are the $75 billion in lost productivity due to illness, injury and premature death. For ROI purposes, get your finance department to figure out your organization’s share of this $75 billion the next time there’s a break in drawing up a set of fantasy figures for post-merger/acquisition profitability.

Aside from lost productivity that hits employers directly, the cost of treatment is a drain on governments that could be reduced and redistributed to other areas — corporate tax cuts included.

Still not enough ammunition to make health and wellness a priority at your organization?

How about something less macro. A study of Halifax-based firms, released by the Atlantic Health and Wellness Institute in 2001, found companies receive $1.64 back for each dollar spent on wellness. In blue-collar settings, with higher percentages of staff who smoke, the return-on-investment rises to $4.

So corporate health and wellness does make sense economically. Ultimately, all the statistics represent the same thing – a tally of the illness and deaths of valuable staff and valued colleagues, and a lot of pain and suffering.

Yes, wellness can be tough for HR to sell to the executive suite. But look on the bright side – it’s probably the easy part, you still have to convince all those employees to change their ways.

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